Instead of military service in Germany, I elected to do ‘civil service’ in a hospice where I worked as a nurse with terminally ill people.
Traditionally, life began, was lived and ended at home. The domestic environment was the epicentre of family and community. A place of joy and grief, growth and decline, arrival and departure. Western urban modernity has tended to fragment the pivotal role of the home. Birth has increasingly been medicalised and almost always takes place in a hospital. Death has been discretely removed from day-to-day experience, to take its course in places designed both to offer a pain-free departure and to shield the living from an intimacy with that final exit. Such places, while clinical in nature, are called ‘homes’. They extend the notion of the domestic into the realms of the institutional. In so doing, they offer the benefit of professional care while separating those on their final journey from those still traveling life’s path.
The German photographer, Daniel Schumann, has made a number of photographic series. While the images are, in each case, portraits of individuals or families, the context is that of a shifting notion of ‘home’. Each series explores this underlying theme from a different angle: the institutional domestic surrogate of a nursing facility for the dying; a rediscovery of the household history of grandparents; the family dynamics that evolve when a child has a potentially terminal illness; the sanctuary of a life among communities that are open and respectful of diversity. His images are imbued with gentleness and sensitivity; presented in a reflective manner that encourages a personal ‘conversation’ to develop between subjects, viewer and photographer. They speak with quiet compassion of the imperfections that mark us out as human, and with subtle resolve of the importance of affording dignity to every person, regardless of their situation, apparent difference or stage of life.
Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?
Daniel: My father is an artist. He studied at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art and knows a lot about art history. As a child, I was always surrounded by artworks and I was able to try all kinds of art making: painting, pottery, drawing, sculpture… I must have been about fifteen years old when my father gave me one of his old Minolta cameras and asked me to come up with ideas of things to photograph. I found an umbrella and took abstract black and white images of the structure formed by the ribs. People told me my photographs were good, so I began an internship with a photographer. Later, I studied photography at universities in Germany and the United States.
In the series ‘Purple, Brown, Grey, White, Black’ you deal with a subject that many people find difficult, not least in terms of seeing images (rather than reading words). How did this series begin?
Instead of military service in Germany, I elected to do ‘civil service’ in a hospice where I worked as a nurse with terminally ill people. Those twelve months profoundly changed my ideas about life and about myself. I realised that the way we live also influences the way we die. Yet, while death was once a part of everyday life, many people nowadays die in hospital, out of sight of wider society.
To me, it seems urgently necessary for people to face the issue of dying and death; to accept the transitory nature of life. My work seeks to make death visible, with all the pain and suffering that fatal illnesses entail, but also with the certainty that a dignified final farewell is possible. A hospice is not a sad place, but a place where the value of life is more present. One is as likely to hear people there laughing as crying.
Was it hard to build the kind of trusting relationships necessary to undertake this work?
I found that – in the context of the hospice, and just being myself while I was taking pictures – it was surprisingly easy to find people who agreed to participate in my photo project and to build trusting relationships. The challenge for me was always to stay on the fine line between establishing a trusting relationship and not getting so close that the death of each person would hurt me too much. My earlier civil service training had taught me how to achieve this.
Why is the series called ‘Purple, Brown, Grey, White, Black’?
Ulrike H. was the first and the last person I photographed for this series. She had motor neurone disease, an illness that causes muscle weakness, severely limiting the ways in which she could communicate. Before she became ill, she had been a dancer and an artist. For her, no longer being able to move felt like a terrible punishment. At the same time, since she had studied art herself, she knew how to use my pictures for her own needs. She told me that she was using my pictures to tell her children about her feelings.
The colours named in the title are the colours of the sweaters Ulrike H. is wearing in successive images. In the beginning, she wore colourful sweaters. But, the longer she was in the hospice, the more the colour faded from her life and clothing. When I came to select the pictures for the book, I realised that the colours fading from purple to black were a powerful metaphor for her situation.
‘Elisabeth and Wilhelm’ is a more personal project. How did this begin?
Unlike my other portrait projects, I had no concept in mind when I started this series. My grandmother died while I was travelling in the Middle East. I had no chance to get home in time for the funeral; I was looking for my own way to say goodbye to her. Since I couldn’t take pictures of her any more, I decided to photograph my grandfather instead. I visited him on a regular basis in the old people’s home where he had to move to after my grandmother’s death. He had dementia and kept forgetting that I was making this series and asked every time I took my camera out if he was “going to become famous now?”
[Left] © Daniel Schumann No Title, 1958 from the series ‘Elisabeth and Wilhelm’
[Right] © Daniel Schumann Grandmother and Mother, 1956 from the series ‘Elisabeth and Wilhelm’
Meanwhile, my father and uncles had to clear the apartment that my grandparents had lived in for more than fifty years. I documented with my camera how their traces gradually disappeared from their former home…
To begin with, I did not know what I would do with the pictures. Then, when I was visiting my father one evening, I stumbled upon some boxes of old slides my grandfather had taken of his wife and children. Immediately, I knew that I wanted to make a book about my grandparents, showing my grandmother through my grandfather’s photographs while showing my grandfather through my own, and connecting both through the photographs of their domestic space.
The first series of your work that I saw was ‘Princesses and Football Stars’. What this series is about and how did you come to begin it?
It is a photo project about children who have a life-threatening illness. Their parents and siblings are, of course, very much involved in this situation, so I decided to take family portraits instead of portraying the ill child alone. Some of these children recovered, some did not.
When I began this project, my aim was to give one last picture to each of the families, showing all of them united. I wanted to help them remember this precious moment. I wanted to show other families in similar situations that they are not alone with their struggle and suffering. And I wanted to explore how it felt for the children when they are confronted with the possibility of dying before they have had an opportunity to fully experience life.
How did the title come about?
When I visited the families at home, I noticed that the children’s rooms looked like fairy-tale lands, each representing the parents’ hopes and dreams of a life without worries. The title suggests those dreams manifested in blue rooms full of posters showing soccer players for boys and pink rooms with princess duvet covers for girls.
How long did you continue to photograph each family?
I’m still working on the project and I do not plan to stop anytime soon. I feel that the project gains depth and diversity with every new picture. Maybe at some point, I will realise that the project is complete, or maybe the families will no longer wish to participate. Until then, I will continue.
Was the long-term nature of the project something you always intended?
In 2009, I started to work with twenty-nine families. Initially, I had planned to photograph each family only once. However, after publishing a book of the first pictures in Germany, I felt that the project was not yet complete. In 2011, I asked ten of the original twenty-nine families if they would be willing to continue to work with me. I am happy they said yes, and so I did continue.
Every new picture brings out more about their personalities; their ideas about life; how children slowly grow to become adults; how the sick children deteriorate or recover; how parents cope with the death of a child. Importantly, the project is no longer just about the illness of a child, but about family; the way relationships change; how some parents divorce and remarry; how teenagers find their first love; how siblings become adults and move away from the family home.
Did a series finish if the child died?
No. It was very important for me to keep working with the families even if the ill child died. I would have felt terrible saying that I was no longer interested in the parents after the death of their child. At the same time, I want to show to other families in similar situations that they are not alone, and that families who have lost a child do find ways of handling the loss, even if this takes several years.
There is something both intimate and formal about your work. As an artist you have gained a lot of trust from the people with whom you work. They let you not just into their domestic space but into their personal circumstances. Yet the way you photograph retains a degree of formality that makes clear this is a collaboration and not simply a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary. How did you evolve your way of working and what have you learned about photographing individuals and families in this way?
It was important for me to meet them as equals and to show through my photographs that this project grew from a process of shared communication. So that, when published or exhibited, it becomes a dialogue between the subject, the photographer, and the onlooker. The idea for my approach was to set a frame that told the onlooker about myself as a person and an artist. Even though I’m not visible in the image, I consider all of my photo projects to be self-portraits, since I’m always expressing, through them, my thoughts, my experiences.
How did your series ‘International Orange’ come about?
In 2011, I won a Fulbright scholarship to work in the United States. I went to San Francisco. I knew when I arrived that I wanted to continue working on the topic of family portraits, but to begin with, I didn’t have a specific plan. Soon, I realised that the ‘city by the bay’ was a special place for me, since it was much more open-minded and diverse than any other place I have ever been. I decided to start my new photo project by combining my experience of living in San Francisco with my continuing series of projects on family portraits. I was brought up in a gay family myself. San Francisco is, of course, an especially welcoming place for the gay community and, while I was there, I was sharing my apartment with four gay guys. So, it seemed inevitable that I would photograph the gay community in order to make work about my experience of living in this city, while continuing my interest in family portraits.
To what does the title ‘International Orange’ refer?
There are several reasons why I chose that title. One of them is that this book is a story about San Francisco. International Orange is the name of the colour of the Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s most famous landmark. Through my pictures, I want to show how wonderfully enriching diversity and respect can be for our lives, if we are able to accept the ‘otherness’ of people around us. For me, it was amazingly enlightening to witness the ease with which people with varied sexual orientations, cultures, and religions live together in the city. Above all, this project is a declaration of my love for the place where all of this felt possible: San Francisco.
What led you to select the image of Nynke, Aidan, and Heaven for the cover of the book?
This is a picture of a homosexual, interracial family. I had asked each family or couple to write a short text about themselves. The three in this picture wrote “Love makes a family”. For me, this combination of image and words summed up nicely the fact that it doesn’t matter what your sexuality, where you are from, or what you believe. What is most important is where you feel at home, loved and respected.
Have you developed a particular ethic for taking these intimate pictures?
I have not formulated an ethical structure as such, I’m just following my gut feeling. That said, it is always important for me to show the people in my pictures in a respectful way and to create photographs through a dialogue with the subjects. I always ask for permission before using a photograph, so that they know in which contexts their pictures will appear. If I have a ‘recipe for success’, it is simply to be honest and to be myself.
What have you learned about yourself over the years, through the process of making these photographs?
I have learned that my photographs grow from a need to find answers to my questions about life, while also helping the people I portray and, I hope, the people who look at my pictures.
Daniel Schumann was born in 1981. He received a Master of Art from Folkwang University, Essen, Germany and won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study in San Francisco. He has exhibited extensively across Europe and, further afield, from Central America to China. He has published three books – ‘Purpur Braun Grau Weiß Schwarz’ [Purple Brown Gray White Black] (Kerber Verlag, 2009); ‘Prinzessinnen und Fußballhelden’ [Princesses and Football Stars] (Kehrer Verlag, 2010); ‘International Orange’ (Kerber Verlag, 2013) – publications variously shortlisted for the New York Photo Award 2009 and German Photo Book Award 2010, and winning the Best Photo Book of the Year-Award, Photo España, Spain 2010. He lives and works in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Photo © Carla Crawley
This article was first published in Chinese, in the March 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.